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I propped myself up so that I could look Dorian in the face. Even in dim lighting, I could see he was serious.
“Who, Kiyo?” I asked in astonishment.
“No, the other annoying kitsune in your life.”
“Why would you … why would you suggest something like that?”
“Excellent question,” he murmured. His brow furrowed in thought, then relaxed into resignation. “Because his human blood would protect him and – my personal opinions of him aside – he is a good asset in a fight. Most importantly, he would have no interest in the crown. Nor would it be of any use to him.”
Every one of those things was true. But there was one obvious problem. “Kiyo wouldn’t help me. Not anymore. Jasmine would be more willing – if only for a chance to escape.” The argument that Kiyo and I had had in the mountains was still fresh in my head.
This brought a smile to Dorian’s lips, and he trailed his fingertips down my arm. “You doubt your own charms. The kitsune will help you, if you ask him nicely. He’s not over you as much as you think. And he too would jump at the chance at some foolhardy way to end this war.”
“Foolhardy … You’ve gone back and forth on the usefulness of the crown yourself. And now you’re willing to – ” I almost said “allow” but recalled my earlier words. Dorian didn’t dictate my life. ” – accept me going off with my ex-boyfriend?”
“This is an acceptable solution. Still dangerous … but I believe you two could manage it. And I trust you,” Dorian said simply. “As you trust me.”
I stared down into his eyes, dark in the flickering torchlight, though the striking shape of his face and fair skin glowed like a masterpiece in marble. “I do trust you.”
He smiled again. “Good. We’ll make plans in the morning. But for now …” The smile gave way to a yawn. “I need sleep. This has been a long day.”
It was true. He’d been part of an epic battle and then made love – or whatever you wanted to classify that kinky shit as – like a pro. My day had been pretty busy too, to say the least. I put my head down, wrapping back against him, and soon slept in spite of the shocking suggestion he’d just made.
When we woke, however, the crown became our immediate breakfast topic. We’d opted for private dining at a small table in the sitting room adjacent to his bedroom. After hearing about my traipsing about in his too-long robe, he’d had my own made for these slumber parties: white velvet with gold embroidery. It was a bit more elaborate than I would have preferred but felt nice against my bare skin. The wounds certainly appreciated loose clothing too.
“Invite him to your castle,” said Dorian. Fully rested, he’d shifted completely into cunning mode, barely touching the elaborate spread of pastries and meats his servants had set before us. “The gods know he won’t come here.”
“Or Tucson,” I suggested after swallowing a gentry version of a cinnamon roll. Maybe I could get Tim the recipe. “He’d probably come to my house there.”
Dorian considered. “No. Get him to this world, to your domain, so that you can leave as soon as possible. Above all, you must not – under any circumstances – allow him to go back to Maiwenn and consult her on this.”
I swallowed another bite and smiled. “You think she’d be jealous?”
“That’s the least of our reasons.” He ticked them off on his fingers. “Remember – she fears you. Us. She wouldn’t see this as an end to the war. She’d see it as you scrambling for power. And, who knows? The kitsune might have no use for the crown himself, but she could coax him into bringing it to her.”
“She’s not vying for power, last I knew. Besides – it’s winning the crown that’s the big deal, right? If it was just given to her, no one would respect her for it. If it can even be given … I thought it returns home when it’s away from its victor.”
Dorian didn’t respond right away. “True. But then that would still keep the crown from you. And we mustn’t forget she might simply talk him out of it because of simple concern for his life.” Dorian’s tone implied this was a petty concern. “No, don’t give him a chance to talk to her. Invite him to you and ask – beg, if need be – for his help. Stress whatever urgent reason will work. A need to end the war. Make up some ultimatum from the ghost.”
I set the roll down and tapped my water glass absentmindedly. This was all starting to make me feel strange. “There’s a lot of conniving here.”
“There always is in politics. In war. In love, even. But this can help us – more than you can imagine. We must put our faith in the old adage that the ends justify the means.”
I sighed. “Okay, then. I’ll do it. When?”
“As soon as possible. Katrice is regrouping. We can take advantage of that.” That smooth, calculating air faded. “Though I hate to lose you.”
“Hey.” I reached across the table and laid my hand over his. “Don’t think of it as ‘losing’ me. It’s just like I’m going to Tucson for a few days.”
He grimaced. “Except your petty human job doesn’t carry such risks. Fetches aside. I do wish you’d let my healers take care of those wounds before you go.”
The stitched-up cut itched, though the rest weren’t bothering me. I tested the range of motion on my left arm. It was stiff but moved. “Let your healers keep working here. Maybe I’ll have Shaya fix it up.” She didn’t possess the skill of a bona fide healer but could do some quick patches.
Dorian didn’t like that but let the matter go. We finished breakfast, rehashing what little he knew about the path to the Iron Crown. I shed my robe for my normal clothes, after first having one of his servants clean and re-bandage my back. My mother would be proud, seeing me follow doctor’s orders.
We didn’t know where Kiyo was exactly, here or the human world, but Dorian sent a messenger to Maiwenn’s court, inviting him to mine. No one from our lands would be welcomed with open arms in her territory, but she’d allow a messenger through and hopefully let us know if he wasn’t currently in the Otherworld. I also sent Volusian to Tim and Lara, warning I’d be gone for a while and to cancel all my appointments. Lara wouldn’t like that, but I had a feeling it would be the least of her worries when faced with Volusian for the first time.
When the time for me to leave came, Dorian couldn’t hide his conflicted feelings. The part of him always striving for advantage and control wanted that crown. The part of him that loved me worried about what I was walking into.
“It’ll be okay,” I said, wrapping my arms around him. “I’m Storm King’s daughter, remember? This’ll be cake. And hey, if that ghost’s lying, I’ll be back tonight.”
“I don’t know if I’d prefer that or not,” he mused. He rested his hand behind my neck and gave me a long, lingering kiss. “Be careful, Eugenie. Fight hard, but be careful. And take this.” From a hidden pocket in his cloak, he produced something glittering and handed it to me.
I held it up. It was a ring, hanging on a fine chain. Both were made of gold. A diamond flanked by sapphires sat prominently on the ring, which was fashioned to look like a circle of leaves.
“Is this magic?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Just something to remember me by. Just something to think about.”
I eyed him carefully. Marriage happened among the gentry, though not as often as among humans. Considering our divorce rate, maybe that was smart. They didn’t give engagement rings like humans did, but he’d know my world’s custom. This ring suddenly made me uneasy.
“It’s a thing of beauty,” he said, seeing my reaction. “For someone beautiful. I knew you wouldn’t wear it on your finger, so keep it on the chain.”
I nodded. Sometimes a gift was just a gift – particularly when someone was afraid his beloved might get killed soon. I kissed him again. “Thank you.”
I’d come alone via the human world, so he sent an escort back to the Thorn Land with me. No one except Dorian and Masthera knew what I was going to do, but the group could sense something big was about to go down. Tension crackled around us as we traveled. Like so many, these soldiers considered Dorian and me a powerhouse. They could hardly wait to see what would happen next.
Kiyo wasn’t waiting for me in the Thorn Land, not that I’d expected results that quickly. No refusal had come from Maiwenn either, which I took as a good sign.
“What are you and my lord planning?” asked Rurik when he saw me. “You’ve got that look.”
“What look is that?” I asked curiously. He reminded me of Tim.
“The look that says you’re planning something.”
I rolled my eyes. “Eloquent as ever, Rurik.”
“Should I assemble fighters?” he asked, shrugging off my comment. Shaya joined us then, scrolls in her arms.
“No. I do this alone. Well, not exactly. Kiyo’s coming with me. I hope. He should be showing up here today.” I spoke more confidently than I felt. Despite Dorian’s certainties, I still wasn’t sure whether Kiyo would help or not. Rurik and Shaya exchanged glances. “Stop that,” I told them. “It’s perfectly platonic. Dorian suggested it.”
Rurik looked like he still had a few things to say about it, but Shaya interrupted. “The Linden King wrote back. He won’t join with us – but he also won’t fight against us.”
“Not the best news, not the worst. We’ll see if he comes crawling when his power’s in dispute.” The words came out with more venom than I expected. Rurik seemed to approve. Shaya leafed through more papers.
“Caria, the Laurel Queen, would like to meet with you and discuss the war, however.”
I knew nothing about that land. “Have we even contacted her?”
“No,” said Shaya, giving me a meaningful look. “But her kingdom borders the Linden Land.”
“Ah.” I smiled. My comment to Ranelle that others would be eyeing her king’s land as his power faded was true. In refusing my offer to defend against that, they’d allowed someone else to solicit me for the other side of that future dispute. “He’ll regret his neutrality later. See if Caria’ll meet with Dorian while I’m gone.” Dorian would understand the situation perfectly.
I figured this was it and started to leave. “There’s one more thing,” added Shaya, twisting a black braid in that nervous habit of hers. “Girard would like to see you.”
Her unease had made me think something bad was coming, but Girard was one of the few people who rarely delivered bad news. If anything, he usually delivered gifts, always coming up with some marvelous new piece of craftsmanship. Some pieces – like Dorian’s sword and Jasmine’s chains – I’d commissioned specifically. Sometimes, however, inspiration struck the artist, and he’d present some intricately worked necklace or diadem that I felt certain was beyond human skill. He could even touch iron in very small amounts.
“I’m sure he’s made something great, but I’m not in the mood today,” I told her. “I want to see Jasmine.”
“He’s not here to display work. He wants to introduce you to his sister.” She looked at me expectantly and seemed surprised by my lack of reaction. “You’ve never heard of her? Imanuelle de la Colline?”
I shook my head. “Should I have?”
Shaya shrugged. “Maybe not. But I think you’ll find her … interesting. It’ll only take a minute.”
It was true I was in a hurry, but Shaya’s attitude intrigued me. We went to Girard’s workshop, rooms I’d given to him on the castle’s outer edge in case his work ever set something on fire. He was bent over a table, fingers magically working a bundle of metal and jewels.
“Another crown?” I asked with amusement. They seemed to be his favorite thing to make.
Girard looked up, startled, and bowed. “No, Your Majesty. It’s something Lord Rurik has requested. If you’d like another crown – “
I waved him silent. “No, no. God knows I have plenty. Hardly seems like Rurik’s style, though.”
Girard didn’t comment. Client confidentiality, I supposed. Turning, he pointed off toward the side of his workshop, and I gaped. A woman stood there, and somehow I hadn’t noticed her upon entering – which seemed impossible. She and her brother shared the same dark skin and black hair, as well as a taste for bright clothing. The dress she wore was a stunning teal silk, cut shorter than most gentry dresses. Something about it gave me the impression she wore it for utility, not sexiness.
“Your Majesty,” she said, sweeping me a curtsey. Also like Girard, a faintly French-sounding accent laced her words.
“This is my sister, Imanuelle,” he said. Like Shaya, he seemed to expect me to know who his sister was.
“It’s nice to meet you,” I told her. When no one said anything, I shifted restlessly, impatient to go. Seeing this, Imanuelle strode forward, her steps graceful and liquid.
“Your Majesty,” she said. “I’ve come to offer my services to you, should you like to hire me.”
I glanced at the other faces, seeking more information, but received none. “What do you do?” I asked. “Do you work metal like Girard?”
A mischievous smile crossed Imanuelle’s face. She had caught on that I really didn’t know who she was and appeared to enjoy that. “No. My talents are of … a different nature.”
I saw a slight gesture of her hand, and then suddenly, the teal silk dress turned yellow. A moment later, it changed form altogether, turning into a flowing velvet gown. Then, she wasn’t Imanuelle at all. A clone of Shaya stood before me. After letting that sink in, Imanuelle returned to her original form. She bowed, as though having just performed a stage show.
“I’m an illusionist,” she said. “I can make people see things that aren’t there. Most importantly, I can make myself look like anything I choose.”
It was one of the cooler gentry powers, but I didn’t entirely see how it’d be useful for me. “So I can finally be in two places at once?” I joked.
That brought another smile. “I suppose … but I’ve honed other skills to accompany these. Ones many monarchs find useful. I … get rid of problems.”
Apparently guessing my confusion, Shaya sighed and dropped her usual formality. “You’re better off not dancing around the subject. My queen prefers directness.” She turned to me. “Imanuelle is an assassin, Your Majesty.”
Imanuelle’s smile tightened a little. I think she preferred her more flowery description. “That’s an ugly word for a formidable skill set.”
It took me a moment to catch on. “So, you’re here to – Wait. You think I’m going to hire you to, what, assassinate Katrice?”
Imanuelle shrugged eloquently, and her brother spoke up for her. “Some might see that as a quick way to end the war, if I may be so bold.” Girard had picked up that I didn’t like this idea at all and was understandably nervous. He valued his position with me.
“It’s a dirty, sneaky way to end a war!” I exclaimed. “It’d make me no better than Katrice and her bastard son.”
“It would eliminate Katrice directly,” said Imanuelle. “Since she is the source of your problems. I could disguise myself as someone in her castle. Quick, easy. No other innocents need be hurt.”
For a heartbeat, her words almost made sense. Then I shook my head emphatically. “No. I’m not going to stoop to that level.”
Some of Imanuelle’s pleasant demeanor faded. “There are monarchs who would give half their kingdoms for my services! I’m very selective. I’m doing you a great honor.”
I narrowed my eyes. “You’re doing me an honor?”
She hesitated, realizing she was addressing one of the most formidable queens in the Otherworld. Again, Girard jumped in to save her.
“Forgive our presumption, Your Majesty. We only wanted to offer it as an option.”
“It’s been offered,” I said bluntly. “And refused. Thank you for the ‘honor.’ You’re welcome to visit your brother, of course, but I’d prefer that you stay here no longer than absolutely necessary.”
I turned dramatically away from them, just catching the outrage on Imanuelle’s face, and strode out. Shaya hurried by my side.
“Spoken like a queen,” she said.
“Do I need to worry about that woman killing me now?” I asked. “Is she going to change into you and pull a knife on me?”
“I’m sure you’d respond as efficiently as you do to the other attacks on you,” said Shaya dryly. “Her illusions aren’t foolproof to everyone. I’m guessing Volusian could see through them if he were around. But, honestly … although her pride has been hurt – she does have quite the reputation – I suspect she’ll simply stalk off and leave you be, if only for her brother’s sake.”
“Well, that’s nice. One less person trying to kill me.” I raked my hand through my hair. “Anything else I need to deal with?”
That was a loaded question, of course. Shaya had a few more business matters for me to look over before I could finally see Jasmine. I hadn’t talked to her after the dinner at Dorian’s and felt she’d be a good distraction as I waited to see if Kiyo would come. I found her outside in one of the gardens, sitting in the shade of a mesquite tree as the sun grew higher and the heat increased. Her guards stood stoically nearby, and her fine chains glittered in the light. At my approach, she glanced up from a book. Petulant, power-hungry teen that she might be, she was also an avid reader, using fantasy to escape her mundane existence when she’d still lived among humans. This book was one I’d brought her recently, the first in a trendy series.
“Is it good?” I asked, sitting down opposite her.
“Not bad,” she said, playing cool. A moment later, she gave herself away. “Are there more out in the series?”
“Three more, I think.”
She said nothing but smiled as she set the book beside her.
“Did you have fun at Dorian’s?” I asked.
“Yeah. It was nice to be out.” Her eyes gazed off, not really focusing on anything. “I think the best part was watching Shaya scare off all the guys hitting on me.” She turned back to me. “Is that what it’s like for you all the time?”
“Not since I got together with Dorian. They’ve slacked off – and Shaya doesn’t scare them away. She abandons me.”
Jasmine smiled again. “Dorian’s crazy about you. Obsessed.”
“That’s kind of an extreme observation.”
“It’s true.” She brushed hair out of her eyes. The sunlight was turning it to gold, making me a little envious; I’d gotten true red from our father, rather than strawberry blond. She could wear pink. “It’s good,” she continued. “His obsession. That bitch Ysabel wants him, you know. And she hates you. So does her mom.”
“Yeah, I kind of figured that out.”
She shrugged. “Well, then, keep Dorian close.”
“I’m not worried.”
“Ysabel’s got kids, and you won’t give him any.”
I was so sick of hearing about me and procreation. “Lots of gentry women have kids. Are you saying I should worry about all of them, Little Miss Love Guru?”
“Not all of them look like you. I mean, not exactly like you … but I think Dorian gets off on redheads. Maybe he figures he’ll have red-haired kids that way. I don’t know. But, whatever. I’m just saying she’s waiting there for you to slip up with Dorian. And he’s already gone for her before. She’s got a bigger chest than you, too.”
“Hey,” I said indignantly. “That’s irrelevant. Besides, he went for her – and she annoyed him. And I’m not going to ‘slip up.’ He’s not going anywhere.” I frowned, surprised by my next words, that I’d actually say them to her. “It’s Kiyo I’ve got to pull in.”
Jasmine’s gray eyes widened in shock. “Him? He’s no use to you … unless, oh Jesus. You guys aren’t planning some three-way, are you? I mean, I know you and Dorian get into some – “
“No!” I exclaimed. “It’s nothing like that. I need a favor from Kiyo, that’s all. A big one. A dangerous one. I’m not sure what’ll convince him.” I smiled weakly, remembering Dorian’s expression when I’d showed up in the tight gentry dress. “I’d know what to do if it was Dorian.”
Jasmine scoffed and gave me a scathing look. “How stupid are you? Even I know what to do if you want to suck in Kiyo. Look human.”
“I am human. Who’s stupid now?” Good grief. We’d advanced to snippy quarrelling. We were becoming real sisters more and more each day.
“You’re half human. Dorian likes that because he thinks he can knock you up … but the rest? He wants you to be a queen. One of the shining ones. Kiyo doesn’t. He hates all of that. He doesn’t want you anywhere near it. You hooked up before you were into all the Otherworld stuff. Be like that.”
I stared at her, startled because she had an excellent point. “Do I look human now?”
Jasmine studied me critically. I had jeans and a T-shirt on, my hair pulled sloppily into a ponytail. My boots were sturdy, made for hiking. Plain. “Yeah,” she said, sounding surprised. “Scruffy and human. He’ll be into that. Except for the ring. It’s from Dorian, right? Put it under your shirt.”
I touched the ring hanging on my chest, having forgotten about it. “How’d you know it was from him?”
“Because you wouldn’t get it for yourself, and no one else would either. It’s also got oak leaves.”
I peered down at it. Sure enough. I hadn’t identified the leaves earlier. I followed her advice, concealing it under the shirt. She watched with approval, then seemed to really notice my shirt.
“Who’s Mötley Cr??e?”
I was saved from lecturing her on classic rock when a servant scurried up to us, telling me Kiyo was here. The ease I’d felt with Jasmine vanished. I stood up, forcing calm, half-wondering if I should take her after all. No. Kiyo was the right choice.
“Good luck,” Jasmine said, picking up her book. “And remember: be human.”
I followed the servant away, embarrassed that I was taking advice from an insane fifteen-year-old. Except … I knew she was right. I made sure my gait was casual, nothing regal. Then, I sent the servant away, deciding it’d be best to come to Kiyo on my own, rather than approaching with an escort, no matter how insignificant.
He was waiting inside a parlor, pacing restlessly. I knew how uneasy I made him, and this invitation had no doubt put him on guard. I watched him unnoticed for a moment, admiring that muscled body while knowing it was wrong to do so. Sneaking up on him was impossible, though. He could smell me. My sweat and skin alone would have given me away, let alone the vanilla sunscreen and violet perfume I also wore.
“Eugenie,” he said, turning around. “Nice to see you.” He seemed impassive, but his eyes made me think he really did like seeing me – physically at least.
“Sorry for the abrupt request,” I said. “You were probably visiting Luisa, huh?”
The mention of his daughter softened his expression a tiny, tiny bit. “Yeah, she’s … she grows every day. It’s amazing.” He flipped back to alert mode. “But that’s not why you asked me here.”
“No.” I settled into one of the chairs, crossing my legs and hoping I looked casual and unassuming. “I need your help.”
He continued standing. “That’s unexpected.”
“Well, I got an unexpected offer. Do you still want me to get out of this war?”
“Of course.” He made a face. “Oh, Eug. Please tell me you don’t want me to negotiate or something.”
I smiled, both at the suggestion and his use of the nickname. “No, I need you for something that’s more your specialty. I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of the Iron Crown?”
Kiyo hadn’t. I provided a brief rundown, explaining how the person who fought through and won it could allegedly inspire fear and awe.
“And that’s enough to make Katrice back off?” he asked skeptically.
“So they say.” I shrugged. “It’s weird to me too, but everyone I’ve talked to claims it’ll intimidate Katrice and her armies.” Best not to mention that “everyone” was Dorian, a ghost, and a crazy seeress. “It’ll prove what a badass I am. And if that forces her into peace talks …” I let him draw his own conclusions.
“It’s a gamble,” Kiyo said. He still sounded doubtful, but there was a crack there. He wanted the war over. He wanted me out of it. “But why ask me? Why not Dorian?”
“Because he couldn’t survive the quest. The way’s lined with iron. It would take an insanely strong gentry – or people with human blood, like you and me. Plus, I trust you.”
I didn’t know if the human solidarity had gotten me anywhere, but he was definitely considering this more and more. I also wondered if admitting trust in him did anything. Part of what had driven us apart was my accusation that he didn’t care enough about me to punish Leith.
“I’d like to help you,” Kiyo said finally. “It’s crazy – but no crazier than half the stuff around here. I should talk to Maiwenn first, though.”
You must not – under any circumstances – allow him to go back to Maiwenn and consult her on this.
“There’s no time,” I said, hastily running through Dorian’s laundry list of excuses. “We have to go now. The ghost who’s going to help me threatened to back out if I didn’t act soon. And we’re currently on hold with Katrice. If I could return with the crown before the next battle, it would be … well, it’d be amazing. No more bloodshed.”
I could see him wavering, but he wasn’t quite convinced. Really, I didn’t blame him. If I had an ally who could advise me on some bizarre quest, I’d want to talk to her too before jumping in.
“You can talk to her if you want,” I said. “But I’ve got to leave now. I can’t stand waiting. I’ll just go by myself.”
That drove the dagger in. No matter how sketchy the logic, no matter how smart it would be to get Maiwenn’s advice … the fear of my running off into unknown dangers was too great. He stared at me for several heavy moments, his expression unreadable. Finally, he sighed.
“Right now?” he asked.
“Right now,” I said.
“Then let’s go.”
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